When you think of jazz artists, you think of cool cats and laid back ladies. You don’t think of civil rights activists and protest song singers. But you should.
We were blown away in 1971 when Marvin Gaye hit the airwaves singing "Abraham, Martin and John." After the assassinations of Martin Luther King, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, the song laments losing the leaders who were working for equality and justice. When Marvin sang "What’s Going On?" we felt the frustrations of many a returning Vietnam Vet, asking for peace, equality and mercy.
But did you know that Roberta Cleopatra Flack originally sang songs of protest? And she did it two years before Marvin? The lead song on Roberta’s debut album First Take, which was released in the summer of 1969 was "Compared to What?"
Written by Gene McDaniels, the song talks about lies, war, abortion, doubt, treason and anti-social behaviors. Roberta very cleverly modified the lyrics by the alternately dropping one word from the originally written curse. First she omitted God from in front of damn in the second the stanza and then the damn from behind God in the forth stanza, to make it playable on the airwaves, yet keep its lyrical impact.
Of the nine songs on this album, two of them are about love and one of them was Roberta’s breakout hit "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Heard in the Clint Eastwood movie, Play Misty for Me, it brought Roberta a wider audience and allowed people to think of her as a pop and R&B artist, but she still sings jazz and protest with the best of them. Check out her militant side in the video below.
And after you listen to it, and you want more, let me suggest Roberta’s "I Told Jesus." It’s about changing your name, which harkens back to the 1960s, when people were discovering their African origins and shaking off the traditional names their parents gave them. And with the middle name of Cleopatra, Roberta understands.
Happy Birthday, Roberta Flack, born February 10, 1939.
~Lydia Barnes (email@example.com)
Our Smooth Video of the Day: Roberta Flack's "Compared to What"